YOUR STORY IS YOUR MESSAGE: YOUR MASTERY OF THE LANGUAGE IS YOUR MESSENGER.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Multiple Paragraphs in a Single Instance of Dialogue

    I was reading a short story at an online literary magazine, here, a couple days ago. The author had elected to write the story in present tense, which I make no secret of disliking because a great many writers seem unable to handle the tense shifts. A lot of this particular story was a recollection of an earlier time, and that past experience itself contained a character's recollection of an even earlier time. Put another way, what I was dealing with was a tale with present-tense narration that incorporated not only a flashback but a flashback within the flashback. This sort of multi-tiered time-hopping is a recipe for disaster unless the writer is skillful in the handling of the transitions. One of the absolute necessities for accomplishing this feat is the ability to compartmentalize dialogue within dialogue, a skill that wasn't on conspicuous display in this story. It was pretty tough to keep tabs on who was talking in some of the flashback and flashback-inside-flashback. For me, anyway. Inserting an opening quote mark at the beginning of paragraphs 19, 20, 21, and 22 fixed this, but it reminded me of just how much and how often this point of punctuation gives fiction writers grief, including those who get published a lot. As seen in this example, the expertise to catch and correct this is not obviously present at some publishers, so writers themselves have to possess it.

    And this is how you do it . . .

    When you express a speaker's words in more than one paragraph, there's an opening quotation mark at the beginning of each one, but only one closing quotation mark—the one at the end of the last paragraph.
    There's nothing to it: just make sure that, when your speaker's words extend across more than one paragraph, you use an opening quotation mark at the beginning of every paragraph but use a closing quotation mark only at the end of the final paragraph.

    Here's a multiple-paragraph dialogue example, with explanations in brackets:

    “Flo Johnson will be at the party, and I want you to stick to her like flies on flypaper. Don't let her out of your sight. [This isn't the only paragraph, so there's no concluding quote mark here.]
    “Her sister will probably be there, too. Our best information says she doesn't know about any of the caper, but I've put Julian on her anyway, just in case. [This isn't the last paragraph either, so it likewise doesn't get a closing mark. Opening mark, yes—closing mark, no.]
    “I want you to remember that your job here is to observe and report. No matter what happens, you're to take no action. Do all of you understand that?” [This is the final paragraph, so it does take a closing mark.]
    
    Here's the whole multi-paragraph instance of dialogue without my bracketed comments:

    “Flo Johnson will be at the party, and I want you to stick to her like flies on flypaper. Don't let her out of your sight.
    “Her sister will probably be there, too. Our best information says she doesn't know about any of the caper, but I've put Julian on her anyway, just in case.
    “I want you to remember that you job here is to observe and report. No matter what happens, you're to take no action. Do all of you understand that?”

    See how it works? For a single instance of speech by a single speaker that extends for more than one paragraph:
  •    Each paragraph takes an opening quote mark, but
  •    Only the last one takes a closing mark. 
    You're probably thinking:: Jeez, you've only repeated all this about half a dozen times already. True, but there's method to my tedium. Most points of punctuation can be learned well and forever by simple rote repetition. And in this you've played right into my hands, al la Blue's Clues. Remember that kids' show, where the information was repeated to your kids--or maybe even to you--several times over a couple sequential days? Those reruns were examples of rote memorization. Seriously, check your brain. See, the rule for quote mark placement in multiple paragraphs, which is an extremely important part of dialogue punctuation, is now in your head there for all time, and you don't even have to try to remember it anymore, ever.
    You're welcome.   
      

5 comments:

  1. This is how I've always done it, but the absence of this practice in much published matter has caused me to wonder if I had it wrong. Thanks for confirming this.

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  2. I was always taught you did an opening one at the beginning and a closing one at the end. When I started submitting things I had a few go this way, but most went the way I always had done it based on what I had been taught. I don't see it in most of the published things I see online or in print.

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  3. Larry and Kevin
    I see it frequently, too. Not all professional writers, and most especially not all fiction authors, know how this works. That the latter don't understand this rather critical point of using quotation marks in dialogue is a little queer. With the lessening of editing support at publishers, a lot of this gets through galleys and ARCs into final published books.

    Most grammar references don't even address it, maybe because the authors of same are likely oblivious to it. The Macmillan Handbook, the Little-Brown Handbook, and the MLA Handbook, for example, don't even mention it. The CMOS and the Prentice-Hall Handbook do, but not very well. The best reference, with a clear explanation and a very good illustrative example, is The Penguin Handbook, section 42a.

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  4. I would be confused if the dialogue were written any other way! You need that initial quote for each paragraph so the reader knows that dialogue is still going on. Thanks, Dan.

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  5. thank you! I've put in "he paused" but like your example, I do have dialogue passages that need to be split for clarity, but the same speaker is still speaking

    ReplyDelete

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